Players are required to hit the ground running if there is to be a next time – and even then there are no guarantees.
Former Wakefield Trinity winger Tom Johnstone scored a hat-trick on his England debut but had to wait five years for another opportunity, while Hull KR half-back Mikey Lewis may not have even made the squad had George Williams not received a two-match suspension.
Both men were given the chance to impress against Tonga and made it count with valuable contributions in a tight series opener at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
Man-of-the-match Lewis laid the groundwork for Toby King's opening try with an electrifying break and demonstrated his self-belief to score the second himself.
Tonga gave as good as they got in front of a crowd of 12,898 but left themselves with too much to do after seeing Johnstone highlight his finishing ability with two second-half tries.
In an otherwise steady outing, the 28-year-old proved the value of a prolific tryscorer in a hard-fought Test match.
Leeds Rhinos centre Harry Newman had a quiet debut as Lewis stole the show in his first outing at international level.
The clash lacked the fireworks of England's hair-raising 20-18 win in the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup but was a good hit-out for Shaun Wane's men as they aim to show they have learned the lessons from their heartbreaking defeat to Samoa at the same stage last year.
Lewis' running game marks him out as one of the most dangerous half-backs in Super League and he wasted little time in showcasing his threat on the international stage.
The 22-year-old first showed speed of thought to spot lazy Tongan defenders around the ruck before accelerating into space and around full-back Will Hopoate. He was eventually hauled down just short of the tryline by Starford To'a but the damage had been done, King finishing Victor Radley's superb long pass with Tonga's right-edge defence all at sea.
After seeing Harry Smith nail the touchline conversion, the home supporters could have been forgiven for thinking the floodgates would open against a team still acclimatising to English conditions.
But there was no repeat of last year's 60-6 demolition of Samoa in the World Cup opener as the sloppy hosts let Tonga back in.
A succession of penalties left England on the back foot and they buckled, To'a diving over in the right corner after a smart kick by Huddersfield Giants playmaker Tui Lolohea had earned Tonga a repeat set.
A superb pass by Smith put Johnstone into space for the first time but he was quickly shut down by enthusiastic covering defence.
Tonga were growing in confidence and hit the front on 23 minutes through a man representing his third nation.
Moses Suli forced another drop-out and Tyson Frizell finished Lolohea's grubber kick in the next set.
Isaiya Katoa added the extras to make it 10-6 to the physical Tongans.
Tonga were winning the arm wrestle in the middle and there was little sign of England getting over the top of them.
It took another moment of magic from Lewis to unlock the tourists when the easy option would have been to go through the hands. Instead, the KR man backed himself – as he so often does – and vindicated his decision by demonstrating his strength and determination to finish.
Lewis let out a roar in the manner of a man who believes he belongs on the big stage.
Smith highlighted his improvement from the tee with another superb touchline conversion to nudge England back in front – but Tonga were never likely to go quietly.
A ruck infringement allowed Katoa to level the scores and the half-back missed another penalty from long range as the Tongans finished the half on top.
The teams traded chances after the break, Smith coming up with an important tackle to deny Keaon Koloamatangi before creating a half-chance for Johnstone with a kick to the corner.
The Catalans Dragons speedster was unable to produce a miraculous finish but soon got his try thanks to a superb long pass by Jack Welsby.
Smith failed to add the extras from out wide but England had a four-point advantage with 25 minutes remaining.
As the sides traded sets with the game on the line, there was a sense it would take a moment of brilliance or a mistake to break it open.
Tonga were the first team to blink as a pass went to ground near halfway and Johnstone pounced to race clear and finish under the posts.
Smith added his third goal to make it 22-12 but Tonga were not done yet.
Tolutau Koula finished a slick move to the left and Katoa knocked over the touchline conversion to set up a nervy final two minutes.
England could breathe a sigh of relief when Suli knocked on in home territory as Tonga fell just short in a repeat of 2017.
England: Welsby, Makinson, Newman, King, Johnstone, Lewis, Smith, Burgess, Clark, Lees, Bateman, Whitehead, Radley. Substitutes: Walker, Knowles, Hill, McMeeken.
Tonga: Hopoate, Toa, Penisini, Suli, Koula, Lolohea, Katoa, Fonua-Blake, Havili, Fotuaika, Frizell, Koloamtangi, Kaufusi. Substitutes: Teaupa, Tatola, Olankau'atu, Sele.
Referee: Aaron Moore (England).